Thoughts for Governor Greg Abbott

The Governor of Texas says that the path forward (in the fight against Covid-19) “lies in personal responsibility not government mandates. “

He has said similar things quite a bit, such as Texans are smart of enough to do the right thing without the government telling them what to do. I think the Governor could use a high school refresher course in government as well as a class I will call “The absolute most rudimentary basic baby principles of logic and critical thinking.”

Here’s the deal.

On his logic, let us remove all traffic signs because Texans can exercise personal responsibility and make the right decision at an intersection. Let’s remove bans on smoking in public places because Texans can decide for themselves what is right or wrong. Let’s not ban getting drunk and driving because Texans have the right to choose for themselves, not be burdened by government intervention.

Governor, the issue is not personal responsibility vs. government mandates, but having the good sense to know where each belongs in society. There are mandates on smoking in public places, for instance, because that is a matter of “public” health not a matter of individual responsibility. While it is great if everyone makes the right choice individually, as a government official with serious responsibilities, you just can’t count on that.

Governor, you envision a utopia in which every individual will always make the rational choice all the time individually, making society run exactly the way it is supposed to. But that utopia does not exist. While if many or even most individuals always made the right choice with their personal responsibility all the time, there are always going to be those who do not. If this pandemic makes anything clear, it is that people have wildly diverging views and come to wildly diverse conclusions about what they ought to do.

Some basics in government for you, Governor. When people come together or live within the same boundaries or on a piece of land, say for example the state of Texas, we want people to have the most freedom they can have to choose the life they want, follow their own pursuits, their creativity, and their fulfillment. But to ensure that for everyone, we all agree to rules that we have to abide by (i.e. limit our freedoms) to make sure my freedoms don’t interfere with the freedoms of my fellow citizens. I can do pretty much anything I want, even if others think its lame or tasteless or even immoral (J.S. Mill made that point in On Liberty. I recommend you read it). But as soon as what I do adversely affects or could harm another, then it becomes a matter of what we call the public good. It is no longer a matter of individual responsibility but a space where the government can come in and mandate things.

Covid-19 is a virus that is highly transmissible. We know this. You understand it, I am sure, because you have been telling us all you are doing to bring in health care workers from elsewhere and other such measures because the surge is out of hand in Texas, and there is no room in hospitals for care that people need. I take it that you accept that the virus is real, not a hoax, that it is deadly, and we have a lot of it here.

Because of its transmissibility and for the good of public health so that Texans can be ensured the freedom to exercise their individual responsibility in the future and not be, you know, sick or dead, you actually can, Governor Abbott, mandate masks in public spaces. No, really! You can! And dig this, it is a hell of a lot less expensive than bringing in workers from out of state to help this independent-not-attached-to-the-national-grid-freedom-fighting state. Plus, your own healthcare workers would finally be less exhausted and exasperated.

Being a lover of freedom, Governor Abbott, I am sure you also believe in free markets. Look at it this way. You enact a mask mandate because as someone in government, you can do that for this matter of the public good (it is that part of the Constitution, for example, that talks about justice, domestic tranquility, and the general welfare right before it mentions liberties). Freedom loving entrepreneurs see the chance to build up the economy by making masks cool! They start selling a whole lot of masks because people love them! In this freedom loving state, you will have all sorts of informed consumers making rational choices because independent corporations know how to use advertising to manipulate the human mind, convincing it what its wants and needs are. People who once screamed about masks saying no one will tell them what to do are proudly sporting their flag of Texas mask!

So you save the lives of Texans, demonstrate the power of the free market, lessen the burden on health care workers, save dollars by not needing out-of-state help (that is, by making use of the national grid of health care workers), and mitigate the spread of Covid in your state! Win!!!

One last thing, Governor. You are sharply criticizing President Biden for allowing immigrants across the Texas border who are infected with Covid-19, therefore spreading the virus in our state. This indicates that you are convicted that Covid-19 is truly dangerous to Texans. If that is the case, why are you not only banning mask mandates but threatening to use your power to take people to court over it? It comes off a bit hypocritical.

That really reveals the real issue. If Covid-19 is real and if it is dangerous and if Biden is being irresponsible by allowing infected people to cross our borders because of the danger (and I grant you that is a very, VERY legitimate issue), then your response that the “path forward relies on personal responsibility,” is grossly negligent.

So, Governor Abbott, lay off the heavy-handed talk about taking people to court who are trying to protect children and their fellow citizens and go do something governor-ish for a change—maybe something like getting our power grid up to spec? That’d be swell, thanks.

Vaccine Refusal and Faulty Premises

When it comes to the Covid-19 vaccines, it seems a lot of people have forgotten basic facts about how vaccines work in general. I am referring to things that have always been said and understood about every vaccine ever in the history of vaccines.

One of the things that I have seen people do on social media posts and on some news media is to speak critically of the Covid-19 vaccines because a vaccinated person can still get the virus. I have noticed several posts of a meme where someone is administering the shot and the person receiving it says, “Am I immune now?” to which the person giving the shot says, “No, you can still get it.” I have seen several friends on social media post one version or another of the words, “The vaccine doesn’t work! You can still get Covid!”

The idea is that there is no point in the vaccine because it doesn’t protect 100% you from Covid-19. This gives many people sufficient cause to refuse to be vaccinated during a global pandemic. Others take it even further that Covid-19 vaccinations are a means of control of some sort by the powers that be.

Whether you use the term “vaccination” or “immunization,” it is important to understand the basics of how vaccines work (as told by professionals who, you know, know how vaccines work). As far as I can gather, there has never been a vaccine about which it was promised that it would absolutely guarantee you could not be infected. Vaccines are not magic nor are they cures. What a vaccine does is to equip your immune system to fight off a virus or bacteria that you may encounter so it doesn’t make you sick.

Why do some vaccinated people still get sick? With Covid or any other disease, a small percentage of vaccinated persons can still possibly get sick. The immune systems of some people, even if vaccinated, do not adequately respond. But the fact remains that vaccines are highly effective, some more than others, but none 100%. This has always been the case with vaccines. Why does anyone think the Covid-19 vaccines are any different? Why are they holding this vaccine to a different standard? It is irrational.

Some vaccines seem to do better than others. The flu vaccine is one that requires boosters, for example, more than others. Because of completely new strains always mutating and developing, the flu vaccine is not a one and done event. Why do people reject the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines, as some do, making the argument that the need for boosters proves it doesn’t work? Covid-19 may be a novel virus, but that some vaccines require boosters to adequately equip the immune system is not novel information.

Another reality with vaccines is that one may get the disease, but its effects are considerably lessened as to what they might have been without the vaccine. One of the things that has been said since Covid-19 vaccinations have been available is precisely that: while it is still possible to get the disease, the vaccine would give you a far better chance of staying out of the hospital, for example. By the way, those who work in hospitals really appreciate this.

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

No one in a position of authority/expertise regarding the vaccines has ever at any time said that once you receive it, you would be 100% immune. Ever. So why are people refusing the vaccine based on something that has never been claimed as if that was a viable argument? Had the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and other such organizations claimed that getting the vaccine would make it impossible for a vaccinated person to get the virus that would be one thing, but that claim has never been made.

A problem is that memes or statements, such as the ones I referred to at the beginning of this post, don’t tell the whole story. They do tend to satisfy confirmation bias, but ones of this kind do not serve the truth. The truth is that if you are vaccinated (whether Covid-19 or any disease) you are unlikely to contract the disease. However, it is possible that you might. If you do, it is unlikely that you will get anything more than mildly ill. It is highly unlikely that you, if vaccinated, would get seriously sick from the disease or even die. If you do, you are among extreme rare cases.

The simplistic either/or—either you are immune and won’t get it, or you are not immune and can still get it—is not helpful in the least.

What about adverse reactions or even death? It would be great if we came to a time where vaccines were highly effective, and no side effects of any kind ever followed. Until that time, however, we must still move forward and make decisions in an imperfect world. Fundamental moral reasoning asks if the benefit is worth the risk. Do we risk some possible bad outcomes to avoid what would be assuredly innumerably worse outcomes?

In moral reasoning there is a principle called The Principle of Double Effect.  I think this principle tends to get misapplied, but it is a valid principle itself. The Principle of Double Effect goes like this: you do a good (or at least morally neutral) act with the intention of obtaining a good end. However, you do see that your good act will have a foreseen, but not intended, bad effect. So, should you do the good act for the good end knowing there will be a bad consequence alongside the good one you intend? According to the principle, if the good effect of your act that you intend is proportionate or greater to the foreseen bad effect that you do not desire, the act is morally justifiable.

Now apply that to Covid-19 vaccines. The act of administering a vaccine is essentially morally neutral, that is, it is neither good nor bad in itself. The act is carried out with the good intention of stopping the spread of a disease and saving lives. However, because we have yet to create vaccines that have no possibility of an adverse effect, we have the foreseen but not intended consequence that some people could possibly have a bad reaction or even, however rarely, die. Conversely, should we not administer the vaccine, a disproportionately large number of people will no doubt suffer and die. In light of this principle, administering the vaccine is morally permissible and, in this case, I think, morally obligatory.

When someone says “the vaccine does not work” and by “does not work” they mean does not guarantee 100% that you cannot get Covid-19, that is a true statement. But then, no vaccine maker or medical professional ever said that it does. If by “does not work” that person means that the vaccine does not offer an individual protection and when received by a high percentage of the population will not provide herd immunity, that is most certainly a false statement. There is no point in making the first claim to object to the vaccine. It is a refusal based on a fiction. The second claim, as stated, is false.

I guess I have said all the above to say this. If you are refusing the vaccine on the premise that once you receive it you are not 100% immune to Covid-19, your refusal is on a false premise. Just stop. It’s a faulty argument not rooted in reality. Get vaccinated unless there is a medically indicated reason for which a medical professional has advised you against it. If that is the case, those of us who can, will get vaccinated (and do all other preventive, mitigating measures) to help protect you. We’ve got your back.

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

The vaccination against Covid-19 does not mean, and never has as is the case with all vaccines, that you cannot possibly get the disease. But getting vaccinated will result the following: 1) Protect you by preventing you from getting it or from you getting seriously ill from it; 2) Due to number 1, it will reduce the number of those in need of hospitalization which will help those working in medicine and care; 3) Save hundreds of thousands of lives; 4) Help us obtain herd immunity to eradicate the disease or stop its spread. 5) We will get back sooner to what we consider a normal life.

What will not getting vaccinated do? It will ensure that we will stay on the hamster wheel of this nightmare for much longer. It will ensure that much more unnecessary suffering and death will follow. Please get vaccinated.

(Closing note: I made several claims here about vaccines, but I gave no citations or web links. Why? There are a few reasons. For one, much of this information, especially about vaccines generally, is so widely available and has been so for years that it is not some obscure notion. Ask your doctor. I also judged that in the case of a blog post, any link I would provide would unlikely result in someone changing their view. I am appealing here to reason and common sense. The medical science on this issue is, as I said, well-established and easily obtained. Lastly, and this reason is linked to the others, I am not a medical doctor or infectious disease expert. This post is not medical advice. I am a fellow citizen appealing to you, the reader, to get a vaccination based on sound medical science that will help bring this disease under control, saving untold number of human lives.)

A Chance Conversation

I recently married just a few weeks ago. I am in my mid-50’s and my wife in her early 50’s. Getting married at this time of life is not like that first marriage in younger days when you set out to build a life. By this time, quite a bit of life has already been built and now you are bringing them together. We each had a home that worked in our individual situations, but neither would work well joining our situations. So, we found a place that would enable us to join our situations and create a brand new situation. We joined our families, creating a new family.

We are new in this North Texas neighborhood that looks a lot like a million neighborhoods here in Texas and pretty much everywhere. I met the neighbor next to us just a few days after moving. He is a friendly and kind individual (we are on a corner, so he is the only neighbor next to us). I had met no one else until a couple of days ago. It is that meeting and conversation that compelled me to write this post.

This chance meeting and conversation took place because I was out doing yardwork. I would say I was doing yardwork like a good suburbanite, except most suburbanites here pay someone else to do it. In the few weeks we have been here, I have yet to see anyone mowing their own lawn. I prefer to do it myself. I am in the middle of doing the trimming when a fellow comes out of a home across the street. We see each other so we waved politely. He was carrying an acoustic guitar and had come outside to play on the step outside the front door (I can’t even say “stoop” as it was not a small staircase. Houses are rarely built with a front porch any longer let alone a stoop). Being a guitar player myself, I had to acknowledge the guitar and mentioned that I play, too. There seemed to be a desire to continue a conversation, so rather than yell back and forth across the street, I laid down my trimmer and walked over.

We shook hands and as we did, he said, “Semper Fi,” so my assumption was that he had been a Marine. I did not ask, and he did not say. He had a long beard and a mustache that covered his upper lip. He had dark skin and a Middle Eastern appearance. There were several tattoos visible on his right arm. He told me his name was Omar and I said I was David. We said it was nice to meet each other and went on to talk about the guitar, how long we had been playing, and what we liked to play. We found we had some musical likes in common, mostly in the classic rock genre.

The conversation then drifted other directions. He shared that he was there from Washington state visiting his parents. He was originally from Houston and said that while he liked the weather better in Washington and San Diego where he had lived previously (he didn’t like Texas heat and humidity), he always felt that people here in Texas were among the friendliest he had known. I agreed that had been my experience as well. I said that I have lived everywhere in my life from southern California to Rhode Island. Here the conversation turned in a direction that I found refreshing.

I mentioned that people in many places are looked upon as rude or curt, but if you make the effort to understand them as they understand themselves and how their world works, you discover that what you take for rudeness is often little more than a difference in personality or can be contextualized within the pace in which different people live in different regions. He replied that he learned that traveling in New York. We both agreed that America is not just the America with which I am familiar and in which I grew up where I feel comfortable, and where everyone acts like I do. America is a land of great diversity, of multiple cultures and traditions.

Just think of The Great Seal of the United States that bears the motto, E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for “Out of Many, One.” Yes, as Americans we are all one, but this does not mean that the many are dissolved into anyone’s idea of what “the One” should be. To speak in Levinasian terms, we do not reduce the Other to the Same. The motto on The Great Seal is about simultaneous unity and diversity. Unity without diversity is mere uniformity, taking away individual and diverse identities that enrich us. Diversity without unity is purposeless and tends to chaos. Unity must preserve diversity and diversity must aim at integration and unity. It is a difficult balancing act and can too often be aiming at unity by insisting that everyone else conform to my individual difference.

Okay, back to the conversation I am writing about. We also agreed that if one is able to travel, just within America, you can learn so much and get a very different picture of people (how much truer this is on a global scale!). I also said how important it is to learn how to listen to others if we are to understand others as they understand themselves. He perked up and said, “Yes! We have lost the art of conversation!”

How true are his words! One of the things I said was that the lost art of conversation among us was something that I attributed to talk radio in the 90’s. Rather than having a real conversation, we learned that there were good guys and bad guys. The good guys love our country, are true patriots, and want the very best for us. The bad guys (usually the other political party) want to destroy everything we built our country on and want to take it away from us and make it into something it is not. The idea that there are different people with different ideas and beliefs, and that each love our country and the lofty ideals to which it strives but have varying ideas on how to best achieve those ideals, is an idea lost on too many of us. Therefore, we must engage in “culture wars.” There is no conversation to be had. We just have to “own” the other side. Language is no longer for conversation, but to employ rhetorical techniques to win an argument against the bad guy. We all think we “have the facts” but are myopically clueless as to the mechanisms of our own minds that shape our understanding of “the facts.”

What I am describing is extremely characteristic of cable news. It is an exception to watch an actual conversation. Instead, we are treated to a lot of yelling, talking over others, and interruption. A question gets asked, the person being interviewed is not given a chance to answer it before being bludgeoned by the host and having the entire exchange being redirected and mischaracterized in a way to make the guest look as poorly as possible. Impressionable people that we are, we behave exactly the same on social media and even in face-to-face conversations.

What I shared and enjoyed with my neighbor’s son, was a true conversation. We noted how we can even disagree and still acknowledge our obligation to do right by each other and that if we continued talking we can even come to modify our perspectives and learn from the other. We agreed how we may not have our convictions changed, but still come to understand the other person in ways we were blind to before—just by sincerely listening to each other.

My friend, Omar, and I had a chance conversation about how important it is to have a conversation. To be sure, there are threats to the lofty ideals to which our nation aspires, and I am convicted that those threats often come from those who yell and scream about liberty and love for America the most. There are fights to be had, true. But I am even more convicted that our default needs to be learning again how to have a conversation; how to have an exchange of ideas and beliefs; how to listen to the other and learn about them than to reduce them to what I think they are; to understand that from conversation a completely new and better understanding can arise.

I do not know whether Omar and I shall cross paths again. But even if not, I am better for having met him and, maybe more importantly, reminded to be better—a better person and one who seeks to have real conversations and to do good.

Worlds that May Be…Thoughts About Books and Imagination

In the novel Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart, there is a small but subtly significant part about a bookshop called Underworld Books. In the story, the protagonist, a young man named Owen Hardy, comes upon the shop in the midst of his adventures far from home. In the window, he sees a copy of a book that had belonged to his deceased mother. Back home, he read this book over and over. The specialness of the book was that it gave a meaningful connection to the memory of his mother. The book told of many lands that existed far beyond his small hometown of Barrell Arbor. Until his recent adventures, young Owen could only imagine any reality beyond his simple existence.

Owen goes into the bookshop and asks if he can look at the book in the window. In an exceedingly difficult time in his life in the story, when he was disconnected to everything that meant something to him, the book represented a connection to his mother and to his home. Upon reading it, though, he becomes confused. It is the same book, but all the stories are different. Places that are described one way in his mother’s copy are described entirely otherwise in this copy. What Owen learns from the proprietor of Underworld Books is that many other worlds exist in which the same people and places have “different fortunes and fates” than in the world of his existence. Likewise, a book in one world also exists in the others but is particular to the reality of that world. What we learn is that Underworld Books has a way of passage between all these “possible worlds” and the proprietor has managed many volumes from many different worlds.

As far as I know, no such parallel worlds exist. I am certainly not opposed to the idea. Yet, there is a poetic representation of a truth in this portion of the story calls for some elucidation.

The late philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, wrote about what is represented in the fictional story in Clockwork Angels, but with a slightly different twist. In the novel, there are innumerable worlds that exist simultaneously. The idea of possible worlds in Clockwork Angels refers to worlds that one can pass into (if one knows how) and experience. In Ricoeur’s philosophy, he refers to what I will call “worlds that may be” that open up in front of the world that is. The world to come can be, within the realm of the possible, anything that we can imagine it to be. The connection that I am making between the fictional Clockwork Angels and the work of Paul Ricoeur is this: what the fictional story creates as several possible worlds existing simultaneously speaks to the reality in the non-fictional world in which we dwell. What it says is that there truly are many possible worlds; but only ones that might be if we can imagine and create them.

To lay some more groundwork for what I want to say, I will ask a couple of questions. Have you ever written something (such as an email) in which you intended one meaning, but the reader of your text understood something entirely different? Moreover, have you been able to see that what your reader understood was a reasonable way to read your text even though what they understood was not what you meant? This is a character and quality of language that, in philosophy, we refer to as “polysemic.” That is, language has the capacity to contain multiple meanings, such that when an author chooses certain words to express an intended meaning, the language can contain other meanings not even conceived by the author but may be picked up by a reader.

But wait?! How can we ever meaningfully communicate to one another?! I like the way Dr. David Kaplan says it: “Polysemy is not only the source of misunderstanding and miscommunication, but also of the richness and fullness of language” (Kaplan, Ricoeur’s Critical Theory). Sure, misunderstanding and miscommunication happens. That cannot be avoided and is why dialogue is so important. As the famous hermeneutic philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, articulated, every misunderstanding presupposes the possibility of a mutual understanding that can be reached through continued dialogue. Yet, language has a real richness to it precisely because of the plurality of meanings it can contain. If you think about it, you know this is true in your own experience. For example, you and your best friend read the same book. It is the same words and same passages and pages; yet when you discuss it, your friend got things out of it that you did not see and vice versa. Your ensuing conversation about the book enriches both of you as you share multiple perspectives. You might even disagree with each other, but that is okay, too. Through dialogue, you learn from one another and have your own world enlarged with perspectives you might not have seen yourself and become the better for it.

The same thing is true for things like works of art or perhaps a movie. Whether you and a friend discuss a painting or a film, you learn that there is more than one way to understand what it might mean. And the artist or filmmaker might have had a particular message different from other ones you might take away from it. This reveals another truth. Once a work, such as a text or work of art, leaves the author or artist, it takes on a life of its own beyond the control of the individual from which it originated. Returning to Paul Ricoeur, he wrote that understanding a text is not so much about attempting to get into the mind of the author, but to “explicate the type of being-in-the-world that [unfolds] in front of the text” (Ricoeur, From Text to Action). This applies to more than texts. But the point is this: once you encounter anything such as a text or a culture or anything that requires understanding, that understanding is aimed at something to the effect of a “where do we go from here?” reflection.

As we look at the world around us and try to make sense of it, we must ask ourselves “what kind of world do we want to live in?” and then how we get there.

One of the tools in our toolbox of creating a better world is the power of imagination. One of the things that Ricoeur talked about regarding imagination is how imagining sometimes gets a bad rap. We need to get real! Quit imagining things! Imagination is thought by some to be opposed to what is real. Ricoeur disagreed. One of the things he said about imagination is that it is an “instrument of the critique of the real.” For example, sometimes when we are trying to solve a problem, someone might say “use your imagination!” Learning to think creatively with imagination can open our minds to see the heart of the problem and then allow us to discover possibilities to, as Ricoeur said, explicate how to be in the world in front of our present situation.

What role does fiction play? Fiction is, of course, an exercise in imagination. When a writer of fiction, like Kevin J. Anderson, conceives of a story with its plot, characters, landscapes, cultures, and so on, the writer must imagine all of these things. Fiction, like imagination, might be mistakenly thought of as disconnected to the real. But again, Ricoeur points out that fiction has the power to “redescribe reality” such that we can, as with imagination, critique the present reality and conceive of one we would rather live in. Consequently, we can be moved to action to bring that world about.

I read a lot of books. I am a philosopher, after all, and reading is a significant part of my job. But I do not read just philosophy. Among other things, I like to read a lot of fiction. When we read, we are transported to many possible worlds. To be clear, the possible worlds of a lot of fiction (I am thinking here of fantasy and science fiction) do not lie in the exact duplication of these worlds where we might find dragons and magic. We have to use our imagination a little. The possible worlds contained in these books are not a literal rendering of the world of the story, but a translation of what is good in those worlds into the reality of our own.

This is one reason I read books. We often read just because we like to. Reading is satisfying. Sometimes it is an escape for a little while from the pressures of our realities. Reading does not need any reason other than it is just good to do. But reading also has the power to help us think of better realities and might just motivate us to do whatever part we can to bring about a world that may be. The hope is that it can be one that is more just and good than the one we have. I do not want to leave the world as I found it. I think I would like to leave it a little better. Excuse me while I go read a book.

Photo by Laura Kapfer on Unsplash

Remembrance of a Friend

It has been a year since the loss of one of the dearest friends of my lifetime. I wanted to write a few words.

My friend was named Marissa. We met in early 2013. It was not long before we discovered that we were both obsessive fans of the band Rush (because of that there might be a reference or ten in this post). One of my first memories of our budding friendship was when I posted on social media something about Rush (as is my custom) and she commented “Rush is the best band on the planet!” We found we had shared interests about many things and common values about life—everything from literature to advocacy and care for those with mental illness. In our brief seven-year friendship, we grew close and I think I would describe the core of our friendship as a deep mutual respect.

On June 1, 2020 I was informed that she had died. She was only 42. Marissa was healthy. She exercised rigorously, ate well, and took care of herself in every way. It was a random freak accident, in her own residence no less, that ended her life. She had moved in the first part of the year to Colorado. When we could, we would occasionally talk, text, or video chat. After the Covid-19 pandemic began, we made it a point to video chat every week or two. We had just discussed scheduling another shortly before the accident. Time is always precious, though it often takes such tragedies to remind us. As a line well known to we Rush fans says: “Suddenly you were gone/from all the lives you left your mark upon” (from the song Afterimage on the album Grace Under Pressure).

Rush composed a song titled Nobody’s Hero that was on their 1993 Counterparts album. In a Rock Icons documentary about bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, Lee said the song “is about the people that go missing from our lives and their disappearance from the world that seems like a crime.” That sums up my loss of Marissa. She went missing from the lives of those who loved her; to those of us who knew her and her goodness, her disappearance seemed like a crime. But as the song says, in this big wide world she was “nobody’s hero.” She was not the “handsome actor who plays the hero’s role.” She was not famous and known to the world. She simply lived her life always finding time to find the good in others and to do good to others—human others and non-human others as well (I think her closest companions were her “snow dogs” and felines). She was an extraordinary person who made being so seem ordinary, like the musician who can play extremely complicated parts with effortless ease.

As the song says, “When I heard that she was gone, I felt a shadow cross my heart…”

The last in-person time I had with her was in January of 2020, right before she moved to Colorado. On January 10th, we learned that Rush drummer and lyricist, Neil Peart, had succumbed to brain cancer (glioblastoma) just a few days before on the 7th. Rush fans worldwide felt a shadow cross their hearts. I had been in the midst of painting my home. One evening, as my fiancée Alison and I were painting the walls of my kitchen, Marissa came by and gave us a hand. The three of us took a moment to raise a toast to “The Professor” (one of Neil Peart’s many nicknames). I grabbed my guitar and we sang Closer to the Heart—if you can call what I was doing singing, anyway. The following morning, Alison and I met Marissa for breakfast at a favorite place for coffee and crêpes. Although I would talk to her and see her via technological means several times after, that was the last time I hugged my dear friend. One never knows when the last chance to hug a friend will come and be gone. I take none of them for granted.

Our last interaction was on May 15, 2020. We were texting and planning our next video chat for that weekend. We did not determine a specific time and agreed to touch base that weekend. I do not remember why, but for whatever reason I did not reach out to her and neither did she contact me. I messaged her midweek on May 20. My message, which I have not deleted, still shows unread. I did not think much about not hearing from her, because we would sometimes stay in touch regularly and other times weeks might go by before we would talk. No big deal. Then I got the message on June 1 about what had happened. There are no words for that feeling that so many of us have felt at the unexpected loss of someone dear.

I have a million or so memories that I hold dear. Many of those are concerts we were at together. We had not met yet, but we realized that our first known concert together was Rush’s Clockwork Angels tour in Dallas in November 2012 (that show was filmed for the tour BluRay/DVD). We were yet to meet for a few months, but we were both there. Along with some others, we were at Rush’s R40 tour at the same venue in Dallas. The very last show we went to together was the Judas Priest/Uriah Heep tour when it came through Dallas and we got the chance to go backstage and meet Uriah Heep, pictured here:

Marissa and I backstage at The Bomb Factory in Dallas with Uriah Heep

The world is remarkably small sometimes. I was not aware of it, but after Neil Peart’s passing from this life (see my post on that here), Marissa had commissioned a painting from artist and Rush fan, Kelly D of  Vital Visions Art by Kelly D. The painting was to be of Neil surrounded by many of his lyrics that have inspired we Rush fans our entire lives. I follow Vital Visions Art on Facebook and one day saw Kelly D post about the painting (nearing completion) and how she had just heard about Marissa’s death. Kelly D was another life that Marissa had touched with her goodness and she—Kelly D—expressed her sorrow at hearing the news. I reached out to Kelly D as I was certain the Marissa she spoke of was one in the same as my friend. We exchanged a few messages about Marissa. I mentioned the exchange to another of my dearest friends (who is about to be my best man at my wedding next month) and being the kind of person he is, he contacted Kelly D and purchased the painting for me as a gift. So what Marissa had originally commissioned now resides with me as it awaits to be framed in the near future. What an immeasurable gift.

“For the Love of Neil Ellwood Peart #7: Read the Words that Touch my Heart” by artist Kelly D

I am blessed to have many friends. I have always liked to think of myself as an individual who prefers a few close friends to a lot of superficial acquaintances. While I still think that way, I cannot deny that looking around I am blessed with many friends who are anything but superficial. Some I have lost. The loss of Marissa will always leave its permanent mark. But how fortunate am I to have known her and how fortunate am I to have such good friends—some near some far—still here. My friend and colleague, Brian Treanor, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, recently published a book,  Melancholic Joy: On Life Worth Living, which I have found to be a timely and important book. Although there is, as Brian says in the book (referring to the final words of Vincent Van Gogh according to his brother, Theo) “sadness that will last forever,” there is also joy that remains. The challenge of life is to live in that joy while inevitably and beyond choice living in the sadness that comes. Anyone who knew Marissa knows that she lived in that joy in the face of every challenge. That is the Marissa I will always remember. It’s a measure of a life…

Time Well Spent

St. Augustine said that he knew perfectly well what time is…just so long as no one asked him what it was. I think we are much like Augustine. Until we have to think about it or give some kind of definition, we know what time is. But how to articulate what we seem to understand leaves us at a loss.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Time is something of a mystery. How is it that moments go by? How is it that a moment that is not yet becomes present before slipping into being no more? Physicists and philosophers explain it in different ways. My own library has a stack of books from bright minds on the subject from various disciplines, mostly philosophy and science. As helpful and often interesting as such explanations are, none of them fully scratch that itch of understanding the mystery of time.

Whatever time is, we all know that we experience it. We all understand a few simple truths. We know we cannot go back in time and change anything that has happened. We can only learn from it so that our present behavior might be influenced for the better. We also know that we cannot step ahead into the future to cause a desired outcome. The only effect we can have on the future is what we do today—in the present.

What is apparent is the only time we have is each passing moment, the moment as it passes. All we have is the fleeting present. So what the hell do we do with it?

We talk about spending time. To spend conjures the financial metaphor. Just as we should spend our money wisely, we should likewise be wise with the allocation of our time. We speak of saving money and of saving time. Just like money, time can be wasted, or it can be well spent and result in something worthwhile and lasting. Also, like money, we cannot spend what is already spent or what we do not yet have. The only time available to spend is the present time.

What is time well spent? I offer here no exhaustive list, nor do I presume what is time well spent for me is time well spent for you. Whatever time well spent is for any of us, I think there are some common criteria by which to measure. The philosophical life is the examined life. That is, I must examine my choices to determine whether they lead to living well. What are some of these questions?

Do the ways in which I choose to spend or pass my time make me a better person? Do I grow or do my choices stunt my growth as a human being? Is my community enriched in any way by how I spend my time? Do I learn about the world around me or become isolated and alienated from it? What should I spend more time doing and less time doing? While each of us must figure out our own specifics, here are a few things that I think are worthwhile to guide us.

More time listening, less time speaking.

We all want to be heard. It is human to want that. Speaking and having our voice heard is fundamental to our well-being. We all want “voice recognition.” Not the kind on devices such as our phones, but the recognition that we are valuable and possess dignity. Very few things are an offense to our sense of value and dignity more than not being heard or, worse, silenced. It should be evident that listening is the counterpart of speaking. If you are speaking but I am not listening to you, then the purpose of your speaking remains unfulfilled. We all know this in our experience. “Why will you not listen to me?” “You are not hearing what I am saying?” My desire to have my voice heard must be balanced by my commitment to listening.

I am convinced that this is as true today as it has ever been. From cable news to talk radio to daytime talk shows to Facebook and Twitter feeds, everyone has something to say. “Everyone knows everything and no one’s ever wrong” (Show Don’t Tell, Neil Peart). There is a lot of speaking going on. It is maddening noise to a great extent. But everyday life in our encounters with others is not the same place as these platforms. We must learn to spend a good deal of our time listening and less of it speaking.

In his master work, Totality and Infinity, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas speaks of the “face to face” encounter with the Other. Who is this “Other”? The Other here is anyone (or thing) that is not “I.” Levinas says that we should consider the Other in her or his “infinity,” that is, a fathomless mystery to which we should be open. According to Levinas, the face-to-face relation “…involves a calling into question of oneself, a critical attitude which is itself produced by the face of the other….” Besides just being the courteous thing to do, spending more time listening to the Other and less time speaking can open us to learning things we did not know, gaining perspectives that we did not have, becoming more understanding of others, and enlarging our own selves, dwelling in a bigger world than the small one we thought was already everything. It is good to learn things we did not know and to learn a few things about ourselves that perhaps we did not want to know but are the better for it. Listening more and speaking less is time well spent.

More time learning, less time judging

This one goes hand in hand with the last one. It should go without saying (yet everything that we say should go without saying is something we feel we should say anyway), but the notion of spending more time learning and less time judging does not mean that we should never judge. Making judgments is an inescapable part of life and even necessary. We cannot not judge. We should just make sure we make good judgments. I propose here that the more we learn, the better equipped we are to judge well. So it makes sense to spend more time on the learning side of things and less time on the judging side. Learn much. Judge little.

You may have prejudgments about a person, a group of persons, an event, a religion, and so on. Just as it is impossible not to exercise judgment, it is likewise impossible to approach any encounter without prejudgments and presuppositions that have up to now formed how you approach the world. To spend more time learning (as well as listening) is to take that critical attitude toward oneself to learn something new. Any prejudgment that cannot bear the weight of being subject to critical awareness and reflection is not worth keeping.

It takes intention to decide to spend more time learning and less time judging. But it is worth it. It is time well spent.

More time reflecting, less time reacting

I do not know about you, but I can sometimes be a little rash. I jump to conclusions sometimes too easily and quickly. It is all too easy to react when something takes us by surprise. Armed with all of those prejudgments that condition our understanding of the world, we already know the answer before we even have to think about what it is that we are reacting to! But then, we also might be a little foolish.

There are times to react in life. Still, I think we often react when we should reflect. Reflecting allows us that step back to really think something through. It allows us the time to notice things that would otherwise pass us by. Reflecting opens a door to call ourselves into question, which can both affirm those convictions we should keep and those we must dispense with. Valid convictions have nothing to fear from reflection and questioning. More time reflecting and less time reacting is, I believe, time well spent.

More time outside, less time inside

My inside time means a lot to me. We are all different. Some people cannot sit still and being inside drives them a little nutty. When lockdown was mandated due to Covid-19, staying inside did not bother me a bit. As I joked then, “I have been training for this all of my life!” Yes, I missed the freedom to go places, I missed people and not knowing when I could see them again was difficult. But being inside itself is not a problem for me.

I forget sometimes, as I am sure we all do, that the world is bigger than me. There is more to explore and to learn than I could manage in a thousand more lifetimes. I am an introvert. I could hide away inside the rest of my life and find contentment. But there is so much I would miss, even things that would make my inside time richer for having experienced it. How one spends time outside is different for everyone. But the value of being amongst trees and waterways cannot be truly estimated. Even being in city streets and seeing the wonders of the world (many in your own back yard) cannot be overestimated. Being among people is time well spent. Serving them or serving with them for some good cause is priceless.

Time inside and time outside are both important. But as a rule, I tend to think (the older I get) that more time outside and less time inside is time well spent.

More time loving, less time hating

Hate is a strong word, but we have so much of it. Some careers are built on having hate or conjuring hate in others. Some hate is actually good. We should hate injustice. To be mildly irritated by a great injustice would indicate the absence of a developed moral sense. Some things call for hate. But we could all do with less of it and I think most hate today is not the good kind of which I speak. Besides, it is much more fulfilling to love. I think it wise to love so much that the only time available for hate is the hatred of injustice. Love is an act and like all worthwhile acts, must be done with intent. You cannot love by accident; you have to love on purpose.

More time loving and less time hating is time well spent.

More time giving, less time taking

Like each example I have discussed, it seems that the more time given to one will ensure less time for the other. Giving of yourself, giving of your time means you will take less from others. We all have to have a little give and take. Human relationships are not and can never be one-sided. While I am giving more time to reflecting, one of the things I reflect upon is what kind of person I want to be. Do I want to be a person who gives more or one who takes more?

There is something about giving of yourself that makes you more, not less. In giving myself away, I find that there is more of me. But the more I am a taker, the more the real “I” fades away and diminishes.

Yes, more time giving and less time taking is time well spent.

Certainly, there are numerous other examples that could be listed as to what to give more time to and what to give less time to. I find that lists help when I take the time to do them! In the spirit of the philosophical, that is, the examined, life, spend a little time thinking about time. What am I giving more time to that I should or would like to give less time to? What am I giving little or no time to that I should or would live to give more time to?

Whatever time is, it is more or less…time. Think about what to spend more of it on and less of it on.

That would be time will spent.

Getting Back in Touch

The pandemic reminds us that we remain firmly rooted in bodily existence with all dangers that this implies.

—Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic 2: Chronicles of a Time Lost (p. 14).

Touch is never so obvious as when confronted with its opposite—the untouchable.

—Richard Kearney, Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense (p. 133).

It has been just over a year since the United States went into lockdown over the Covid-19 pandemic. The phrase “social distancing” entered our common discourse. Some preferred “physical distancing.” Regardless of the chosen phrase, the meaning was clear and related to how Covid-19 was transmitted. Stay away from gatherings. When it is necessary to enter a public space, such as a grocery store, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet. As I wrote early on in the first of three parts over at the blog Hermeneutical Movements, “With social distancing, we are being directed specifically to avoid the sensation of touch. Wash your hands. Do not touch others. Stay 6 feet apart so that the microscopic body of COVID-19 does not touch your body or from you the body of another.”

The situation led us to do what people tend to do as an outlet. We expressed ourselves on social media. Feeds were awash with memes and varied types of posts expressing all the differing viewpoints on the crisis and the intense emotion that accompanied those views. A very regular theme, obviously so, was about not being able to see or touch those we love who were outside of our households. It is important to note that “see” here means to see in proximate physical space. “Seeing” was something that in many ways increased during the pandemic through the medium of real-time video chat. “Zoom,” one particular platform, became the catch all word, although it was one platform among many, such as FaceTime, Webex, and others. I was reminded of when I was a kid when “Hoover,” a brand of vacuum, became the synonymous with “vacuum cleaner” regardless of the brand (“I am going to grab the Hoover from the closet and sweep the carpet.”).

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Yes, we did a lot of “seeing” each other. We were suddenly having weekly get togethers over video chat with friends and family we might have rarely seen prior to that. But when we say things like, “I am going to see the doctor” or “I will be seeing a friend for dinner” or, when we start dating someone, “I am seeing so-and-so,” what we really mean is that we are going to be in physical proximity in a shared space—the doctor’s office, a restaurant, or being together frequently with a new flame.

When people reacted to not being able to see or touch loved ones, they were reacting to having to stay physically away from them. As human beings, we need physical closeness. Whether with one another, outdoor spaces, or animals, we need the corporeal experience of an other. Back in the day, before cell phones, phone company advertisements told us that long distance was “the next best thing to being there” and to “reach out and touch someone.” These advertisements exploited our most primordial human need—the need to touch and be touched. Today, Zooming might be construed as the next best thing to being there. But there is no mistaking, long distance phone calls or video chatting cannot replace “being there.” These may be the next best thing, but we all know that being there is the best thing.

So it is quite reasonable that people would have passionate reactions to guidelines and directives that we quarantine and to distance at least 6 feet from those outside of our immediate household. I recall at the time hearing people take great offense. How horrible, for example, to tell a grandchild not to hug grandpa and grandma! The very idea! The notion was implied that somehow the state was seeking to control human intimacy and separate us from one another.

Then there were those who questioned the reality of the danger of Covid-19. Hey, if there really is a deadly virus, why are there not biohazard containers to dispose of them?! This question implies that Covid-19 must not truly be the danger it is claimed to be or there would be proper disposal containers. One need not be an infectious disease expert to answer this or similar questions. Yet, people persisted asking them anyway and, of course, such questions fueled outlandish conspiracy theories about the virus.

It would be nice, ostensibly, to live in a world without nuance, in which pesky variables in existence did not force us to use prudential judgment in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. The crucial question is whether Covid-19 is an extremely deadly virus. We know that it is (if after all this time you are not clear on that point, I do not know what to say). Of course, our “default setting” is to want to be together. We want to hug each other when we meet and when we say goodbye. We want to express our love for those close to us. But in other contexts, we all understand that there are times when because of our love for another, we do not touch. Why is it so difficult to understand why we need to refrain from touch in a Covid-19 world?

If someone is sick at work, we tell them to go home and stay away! We want to avoid getting sick. If someone has a cold, we say “don’t breathe on me!” We tell people to cover their mouths when they cough and to use their elbow not their hands. School teachers, when asking for help with supplies, always have anti-bacterial wipes on the lists to keep the classroom sanitary and avoid illness spreading in the classroom. We all understand these things. Social distancing guidelines and restrictions on gathering in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic are no more, no less than this common wisdom, only more intense, proportionate to the danger this virus poses.

So, yes. We want to touch. But sometimes we understand that we must not. Under ordinary circumstances, we express love with touch. Under out-of-the-ordinary circumstances, loving others sometimes means we express our love and care for others and their well-being by not touching them.

Consider the Žižek quotation at the top of this article. “The pandemic reminds us that we remain firmly rooted in bodily existence with all dangers that this implies.” No matter how technological we become, how much we engage in virtual activities, no matter how many Zoom meetings we participate in, our existence is in the flesh. The body must be nourished and hydrated, or it dies. Sickness is in the body. Viruses affect the body. When we stub our toe in the middle of the night on our way to the bathroom, we become very aware of our bodily existence. Living in and through the body is so basic to our existence, we go through our day without thinking about it. That is, until something, as Žižek says, reminds us. Also, as he notes, bodily life is dangerous. You can get sick. You can be in an accident.

Likewise, like so many things, when we cannot have it, we want it. To refer to Kearney’s words at the top of this post, “Touch is never so obvious as when confronted with its opposite—the untouchable.” Kearney says in the same chapter of his book, “The more touch is impossible, the more one wants it and appreciates how vital it is to our being,” and “The rarer tactile experience became, the more it was valued.”

Kearney notes that our embodiment is primal. It is true that when we are denied touch, we become very aware of how important it is. I am now teaching all my classes online. While it is necessary for my safety and the safety of my students, I miss interacting with them in the classroom. A fellow academic told me recently that she likes to make cookies for her students and bring them to class. She is also teaching online and misses giving that simple gesture of love. But the pandemic has created a situation that the most loving thing to do is not touch.

I have students who have contracted Covid-19. What if my classes were in person? Before knowing they had it, they would have brought it to class with them, endangering their fellow students and me, their professor. While I would rather be with them, I understand that it is better that I am not. I may not like it and wish to return to normal, but wisdom says this is best for now. In order to return to touch, we must avoid it as much as possible for now.

Thankfully, we are getting closer. The vaccines are being distributed. We will reach herd immunity. When we get back to “normal” life or whatever a post-pandemic world will look like, let us not forget what it is to be “rooted in bodily existence” and how “vital it is to our being.” The world will continue to grow more virtual and technological, not less. This will benefit us in many ways, certainly. But we are never not bodily beings. While I would rather the Covid-19 pandemic had not been, there are many lessons to learn from it. Basic to them all is that we are tactile beings.

Yes, hug your loved ones. Maybe even more often. Do other things, too. Go outside more often. Put your phone away. Hug a tree. Take more walks. In whatever way you choose to get in touch with your body does not matter. Just get in touch.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

Opening Up Texas—Bad Idea Gov. Abbott, Very Bad Idea

I have been a resident of the state of Texas since June of 2004, approaching 17 years now. A job brought me here and while I had not seen Texas in my future before that time, I have come to enjoy and appreciate quite a bit about this state and the area in which I live. Whether 17 years here makes me an official Texan is a matter of opinion, I suppose; but one thing is certain—as a resident of this state, Greg Abbott is my governor.  Speaking as a resident of Texas, I have to say that my governor is acting irresponsibly and foolishly.

On March 2, Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA 34 opening up the state of Texas without restriction and rescinding the mask mandate. In fact, most previous executive orders related to COVID-19 have been “rescinded in their entirety.” GA 34 is rather clear that there are “no state-imposed COVID-19 operating limits for any business or any other establishment” and that there is “no state-imposed requirement to wear a face covering.” After he announced this at a press conference, the governor tweeted:

The ALL CAPS indicates it is really important, I suppose.

Governor Abbott distinguished between counties in Texas with high hospitalization rates and those without. For those without, people are “encouraged” to wear a mask when they cannot socially distance, but “no person may be required” to wear any sort of face covering. In counties with high hospitalization rates a county judge may order “mitigation strategies,” but not those that require “business and other establishments” to operate below 50% occupancy. He forbade any operating limits on religious services.

If, in these counties where a judge does impose mitigation strategies, someone violates them, what happens? Nothing much. Governor Abbott said in the order that confinement in jail may not be imposed as a penalty. If someone refuses to wear a face mask where it has been required, no penalty of any kind may be imposed. The only recourse a business/property owner has is to request law enforcement to remove the violator from the premises (under the Texas Penal Code, any property owner already has this right for any reason or no reason).

GA 34 does “strongly” encourage people to “use good-faith efforts” to follow the coronavirus health guidelines of the Texas Department of State Health and Human Services. Seriously, Governor Abbott? First, you open the state without restriction; then you ensure no real consequence for violating any requirement where such can be held up. Then you ask for “good-faith efforts” to follow DSHS guidelines? Why? If the threat is so inconsequential as to open the state entirely and to completely rescind a mask mandate, then are those good-faith efforts necessary? If the threat is so inconsequential that you think there is no need to use the power of your office in the interest of public health, why ask it of individuals? If the threat is so inconsequential, just open the state, rescind any mitigation mandates, and be done with it. Certainly, individuals can do what they want. I will be wearing a mask in public. But asking for a good-faith effort while simultaneously stating that it is safe enough to open up 100% makes no sense. If there is a reason for people to use good-faith efforts, then there is reason for you to impose mitigation efforts accordingly and proportionate to the need.

The Order goes on to say some other interesting things. Abbott says that the GA 34 does not preclude businesses and such from imposing requirements on employees and customers, including a face mask. But, of course, no one has to follow it. I suppose an employee could lose her or his job and a customer could be removed from the property, but that is about it. Employees have more incentive, obviously, to comply. The point is that there are no state sanctions. The Order goes on to talk about facilities such as nursing homes, jails, schools, etc. In a nutshell, the word is that these places should follow the guidelines of appropriate agencies (e.g., Health and Human Services, Texas Education Agency). Why those agencies and not businesses? Yes, I understand the difference between state agencies and privately owned businesses. But if it is safe to open 100% then why should even state agencies need to continue mitigation practices? If it is safe for businesses, then it is safe period. COVID-19 makes no such distinction between public and private.

In his press conference, Governor Abbott offered justifications for his actions. For instance, we now have vaccines, and those vaccines are being amply administered in the state of Texas. As of this writing, I just received my first shot this past Friday and will receive my second by the end of this month. There is no doubt that these vaccines are, as the Governor described them, “tools to protect Texans from the virus.” You know what other things are tools to protect Texans Governor Abbott? Mitigation strategies that you, by Executive Order GA 34, have rescinded. The availability of new tools does not mean we can abandon former tools.

Perhaps I am mistaken. He also said at the press conference: “Today’s announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year.” To the contrary, Governor Abbott, an executive order that, in your words, opens the state 100% and cancels a mask mandate, does precisely that! Executive Order GA 34 effectively abandons those safe practices you claim Texans have mastered. That Texans are free to continue to practice them by individual choice does not speak to what your executive order does.

Governor Abbott may reply that Texans have gotten so good at mitigation practices that he is comfortable rescinding mandates and opening up the state. But would that not indicate that such practices are still necessary? Whether by law or free choice, that is the question, is it not? Are such mitigation efforts necessary? If so, then there is no reasonable justification to cancel them by Executive Order, leaving them to individual choice. And while I and other responsible Texans may freely choose to continue safe practices, an executive order that rescinds them will mean that I have to deal with many other Texans that will not continue them, because the governor of the state gave them permission. Since the pandemic began, I do not get out much. But even in the little that I do, I have heard people, far more than I am comfortable with, say that COVID-19 is a hoax. I have heard people proclaim the virus is overblown, despite more than half a million deaths of fellow American citizens. Setting aside the fact that there is no data that would indicate that Texans, en masse, will practice safe mitigation, it is not reasonable to place the burden on individual choice if such efforts are still necessary to protect the population. Individual choice is great until it negatively and harmfully affects others.

He also stated that this executive order “ensures that all businesses and families in Texas have the freedom to determine their own destiny.” Do those who have died have the freedom to determine their own destiny? Do those who have recovered but now have permanent health problems and are most certainly looking at a life shorter than they would have had otherwise have the freedom to determine their own destiny? Does my freedom to determine my own destiny imply that my actions may justly impede this freedom for a fellow citizen? Governor Abbott’s statement here belies a myopic political philosophy that does not understand that individual freedom and the public good are not opposed but rely on each other. By his logic, let us no longer ban smoking in restaurants. If I may, for example, refuse to wear a mask for the health and safety of my fellow Texans, then why do I not have the right to blow cigarette smoke in their faces? Smoking in public places has been banned due to the known consequences of cigarette smoke. It is understood that the “freedom” to smoke does not extend to endangering the lives of others. Why should a virus that wreaked global havoc and killed millions be any different? Perhaps seatbelts should be a matter of individual choice. While we are at it, why have stop signs and traffic lights. Have not Texans mastered sound traffic practices? Abandon speed limits in school zones. Surely, people will drive safely to protect school children.

Abbott is correct. We have many tools now at our disposal to protect Texans from COVID-19. Use them. Do not relinquish the responsibility of your office and the state of Texas to employ those tools. Rather, use that power to make vaccines available to teachers and all employees in public education. Make those tools available to all healthcare workers. Partner with the efforts of the federal government for the good of all Texans. Yes, things are looking up. This is precisely the reason not to abandon mitigation strategies, but it is precisely the time to double down and take care of Texans.

If the short history of the past year is any indication, opening up now and rescinding mandates, especially mask wearing, is a guarantee that cases will surge when it does not have to be that way. Maintain mitigation strategies. Anything short of that is, as I said at the beginning of this post, irresponsible and foolish. The real message here is that Governor Abbott is willing to sacrifice hard working Texans who make substandard wages for “the economy” (read: profits).

Another irony here is that the day after he says that Texas is in good shape and that we can open up the economy, Abbott tweets this:

Could it be that when the inevitable spike in cases and deaths results from his irresponsible governance, the Governor of Texas has already prepared a scapegoat?

Texas, in my 17 years here, I have come to love you. We can do better. Governor Abbott, a resignation would be the right thing to do now.

“Hermeneutics in Real Life” – Report on a New Project

“Consequently, hermeneutics cannot remain a technique for specialists—the technē hermēneutikē of those who interpret oracles and marvels; rather hermeneutics involves the general problem of comprehension.”

—Paul Ricoeur

“The principle of hermeneutics simply means that we should try to understand everything that can be understood.”

—Hans-Georg Gadamer

One of the most prominent misunderstandings about philosophy I encounter time and again is that philosophy is esoteric and does not apply to “real” life. As with any discipline there are aspects for the specialist, to be sure, but philosophy has far more to do with so-called real life than it does with the esoteric. Those who believe philosophy has no worth in day-to-day life simply do not understand what philosophy is in the first place.

If what I just wrote is true about philosophy generally (spoiler alert: it is true), then it is even more so with a particular field of philosophy known as hermeneutics, which, going back to Aristotle at least, hermeneutics has a history as old as philosophy itself. Hermeneutics studies what it is when we interpret the world—that is, when we comprehend meaning and gain understanding. Questions such as the universality of interpretation, the role and function of language, and the conditions for understanding are all things hermeneutics engages.

As such, hermeneutics has a broad application to any number of things. In my years of studying hermeneutics, I have seen hermeneutics brought to bear on several different disciplines. I have read, for instance, articles on the application of hermeneutical principles to medical professionals communicating with comatose patients. I have read (and written a few) texts about hermeneutics and environmental issues. The more you understand hermeneutics, the more obvious it becomes that there is almost no human activity that does not involve interpretation and, thus, can benefit from hermeneutical insights.

The foregoing is why I am particularly excited about a new project from Dr. Todd Mei called Hermeneutics in Real Life (HINRL). The HINRL project is aimed at the application of hermeneutics to life outside of academia. There are several resources already available. Of particular interest and value are the upcoming “Conversation Sessions” on a variety of topics beginning March 7 with Professor Richard Kearney of Boston College. Professor Kearney will be talking about The Guestbook Project, which is an initiative aimed at peacebuilding and conflict resolution throughout the world through storytelling (i.e., narrative).

In subsequent months, other topics will be discussed from a variety of speakers. Everything from “What is Sex?” (that got your attention) to “Narrative Medicine” to “Meaningful Work” and others. The sessions are free to attend via Zoom but require pre-registration to get the Zoom link.

I encourage those interested to look at the HINRL website and explore the pages and resources there. If you are wondering what this business of “hermeneutics” is all about, take a look at the “New to Hermeneutics?” page on the site.

I hope this new project has great success!

On Being Political

We have just gone through quite a tumultuous season of politics. As I write this, the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took place a few days ago. On January 6, the constitutional certification of the 2020 election was violently interrupted by a seditious mob with no regard for truth, democracy, or justice. I wrote about that here. It would make sense to assume that a post about being political was motivated by these events and the general political climate in which we have been dwelling. The fact is, to the contrary, it is just coincidental. I planned to write a few posts about different words and, specifically, how we use them in a way that tends to obfuscate their meaning; and, thus, obfuscating how we understand (interpret) the world and how we conduct ourselves within it. The first on my list is what it means to be “political” or to engage in politics. That said, if what I write here has any merit to it, it might reflect a better body politic than we have recently endured.

I am sure most of us have heard someone say something to the effect of, “When the family gets together for the holidays, best not to talk about politics.” We have all also heard someone say, and perhaps said ourselves, that some public official or another is “playing politics.” Or how about “Whoa there! This is getting too political!” We talk about the political in companies in which we work. In these and similar uses, all of which are quite common, politics and the political are cast in a negative light. Being political is bad. Being political means to be cunning, clever, and wily so as to have the upper hand in advancing one’s agenda (without regard for ethics or goodness).

But is this the best way to look at being political?

Politics or the political is rooted in the Greek concept of the polis, that is, the city. When a group of people choose to inhabit the same space and agree on rules for sharing that space, they become “citizens” in contrast to a grouping of isolated, autonomous individuals where the only rule is power and survival. I have liberty, but my liberty ends where yours begins. If I hold my liberty to be a good, then I must hold that yours is, too. If we are to inhabit the same space, it is good that we protect the liberty of all individuals. This means that we are going to have to have some rules and to organize ourselves in such a way that every individual can live free amongst all the other free individuals who share the same space. It is a false dichotomy to pit individual liberty against the collective good. Each contributes to the viability of the other. Individual liberty is protected in an environment of the collective good and the collective good is made healthy when the individuals within it have liberty. The “one” and the “many” are not competitors, but necessary counterparts.

How we define the collective good and individual liberty is what it means to be political. That we dwell together is unavoidable. How we dwell together is the art of politics. Being political in its truest sense means to act like citizens. In Latin—civitas. Civitas can be described as the bunch of us all living together, willingly bound by the same rules so we can live together in relative peace. If we have disagreements, we have things like courts, for example, to settle disputes. I may not like the outcome and courts can make mistakes (no one is infallible, which is why we have appeals), but such a fallible apparatus is to be preferred. It helps us remain “civil.”

Granted, everything I have written here should be understood by anyone who has had 9th grade level civics in high school. However, if my social media feeds are any indication, there are a lot of grown adults who need to revisit 9th grade civics. A little revisit to the humanities, such as literature or philosophy, would not hurt them either.

Certainly, there are much more nuanced discussions to be had. There are sharp disagreements in political views, economic views, and morality for which easy answers are not available. It would be naïve to think otherwise. But the greatest chance of success we have is when we learn to be political in the truest sense of the word. If we cannot get “political” at the family gathering, especially when divergent views are present, it is because we are not good at being political. Like everything, politics has its proper place and time, and recognizing that is itself good politics, good civitas.

Not everyone will be political in the same way. Some will become politicians and leaders. Others will simply get out and vote when it is time while being a good citizen each day in the workplace and at home. You and I each have to find our way of being political, but not being political is not a choice. As a writer/musician whose use of words I am very fond of wrote, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” He also wrote that “the men [and women!] who hold high places must be the ones who start,” but the blacksmith, the artist, the philosopher, and ploughmen must also do their part to bring us “closer to the heart.” (Neil Peart).

Let us not avoid being political. Let us learn to be good at it. It is long overdue that we put being a citizen back in the citizenry.